In case you’re interested, that story developed in a most dramatic fashion.
The following is a story about an experience. It tells of uncomfortable encounters and disturbing revelations. It tells of care, its abundance, the privilege thereof and its concomitant lack. It tells of human relationships and their modification through an array of prepositions – non, more-than, supra, inter, post – and their entrapment and entanglement therein. It is a reflection on what it feels like to be unsettled. It is an honest attempt at confronting and posing some awkward questions. It is also an experiment in writing; storytelling, reportage and academic research.
After administering a further round of rabies immunisations, that is additional to the dose received but unaccounted for by sloppy veterinary pen pushing, we drove to the address of the kennels recommended to us by the Calais animal border control. What an ‘ordeal’ that drive became.
The distance in miles or kilometers – depending on the metric system one is used to – was in actual fact not too great. Simple enough. Follow the navigation system, admit the hounds, swallow the guilt and get back for the train (we had missed our original one by this point, but the ticket was to be transferred free of charge). The first calamity was a wrong turning, no doubt induced by the shock and stress of it all, that took us ten minutes onto the toll road and so pinched from our pockets the first of a number of €2.50 pieces. It’s winter dark, we’re racing through the flat country surrounding Calais, pockmarked with industrial scabs, and the mood is agitated. Upon reaching the toll, further misunderstanding and hurt feelings between the driver and the navi system resulted in a second wrong turn sending this vehicle of wrought nerves and futile rage ineluctably on another toll road bound for the metropolitan deep, Paris. ‘Recalculating’. The estimated time of (eventual) arrival gains significantly. We’re distraught and the hounds are knowingly subdued.
The reader may be feeling disorientated at this point. Perhaps you are wondering where this is going, indeed where we are going, have been and were at this past present point. Plunging into the middle of things or being plunged, rather, is disorientating. Indeed, in the case of resolute rejection at the animal border control it felt like a small existential threat; utterly unexpected, a shock, incredulous, chaotic, disruptive and most unfortunate.
There is no time or space to resist nor dwell in the unfortunate. We motor on, overtaking the pootling lorries set to work-time and in the back of my mind I am anticipating the strain on the not-all-too-consistent stamina of the engine exerted by our hurry. It’s another twenty or so minutes before we reach the correct turn off, anxiously deciphering navi’s pictorial instructions. The relief upon (finally) hitting the right road is swallowed immediately by the dawning horror and increasing recognition of these industrial borderlands. The atmosphere is gloomy. Steely shutters on provincial windows. The frightful apparatus of postmodern industry, neither obsolete not quaint, woefully pitiful. The chilling concrete barricades, reminiscent of Cold War Berlin, so erected to demonise and restrain the movement of undesirables, are an unsettling reminder. It’s grim here. Frightfully so. There is no reassurance for the despairing parents of two soft, well-loved, and cherished, elderly canine children to whom cold nights and brutish company are unknown.
We cross through a foreign village, at the mercy of others; satellites, petro-computer engines, medical travel bureaucracy and the network of professionals, service providers and clerks spun within it. And then there are those banished to the outside, peripheral aliens stalking the dead streets communing in the eerie pace of the night. We turn a broad, discreet road, dimly lit and foreboding, empty but for the silhouettes gathered along and across it, in and on it, occupying its edges and the small verge – an impotent traffic formality – that orders the road into two. Sat upon our elevated seats, we peer anxiously through the wide front window and encounter the glare of dispossessed men. The way ahead stretches out threateningly and the immediate presence of these men in the middle of the road is forbidding. Almost on auto-pilot, thoroughly disorientated, uneasy and certainly not feeling in control, we continue in motion ineluctably forwards.
No one speaks as the vehicle – at an excruciatingly timid pace, for we are unable to drive any hastier, although we may have wished to – sails past and through the gang of unpredictable bodies, either side languishing hooded and anonymous, menacing our composure. Our composure of taken-for-granted security and safety, of relative privilege, of integrity … an internal conflict arises. A very real fear of the unknown and the piercing of the most basic confidence in one’s own safety induces a state of anxiety unto which paranoia finds purchase. Guilt and shame for the ease of association are tended to by placatory liberal rationalisations. Did I make this association? Should I be afraid? Is it fear of a threatening masculinity, their hoodies, their alien status and the stories one hears? Or is it ‘simply’ (and understandably) darkness, numbers, exhaustion’s weary toll, the accompanying uneasy atmospheric fabric of borderland industrial non-places or the haunting residue of past violent experience – bigger lads, playground fights and bloody noses? Am I guilty of discrimination or am I permitted to be afraid of fellow human company? Or perhaps I pretended not to be afraid, either confident, naive or foolish that no harm would be intended, could take place. In the wake of self-prophesying second-guessing, what stories do we spin? Such encounters are profoundly unsettling.
Once clear of the scene, unscathed, we drive the last, long, dark road to the kennel, now monstrous in our imagination. We encounter odd men alone shuffling along the road’s edge in the opposite direction. The headlights illuminate and I am sure their intrusion is unwelcome. Where are they heading to? Who are they? What are they doing here?
Hostile, grim, quarters, arbitrary, from the dogs perspective drawing a parallel to the immigrant experience, balancing description, care, wanton, consolation, thrust food, callous, the arrival / locating of the kennels, unwelcoming, no light, dark alley, surreal, random, anxious searching, sat nav – indiscriminate,
The entrance to the kennels – a dark and random alley off an equally dark and random road – is almost imperceptible. At this point our anxiety is incredibly heightened as we approach houses with shutters instead of windows in search of the right address. Boy racers menace the empty road. Eventually, the proprietor of the kennel is located and the arrangement established in broken French. Her manner and the prison-like proportions of her quarters are wholly indifferent to our story. We are not welcome. It’s cold and there is no care here. The reluctant dogs are ushered into a breeze block cell with minimal shelter. Frightened by the ferocity of their fellow inmates they settle into the dank air, dismayed and dejected. The food thrust at them – as if that would help – is neither appetising nor appealing. The only familiarity are their dog baskets, a small conciliation as we imagine the bitter chill and their sleepless bodies huddled alongside one another. Numb despair settles as we consent to their incarceration. What choice do we have? Will they understand? The prospect of twenty-one days languishing in a lowly French prison is ignominious for the likes of such sensitive pedigrees and their softened, cultured, urbanite personalities. It is also frighteningly financially threatening for an ageing household, retired, self-employed, with precarious balance sheets and a voracious mortgage.
The contradictions and juxtapositions are glaring. These rare encounters, induced by more-than-unfortunate mishaps, are profoundly unsettling. It is not just a case of being confronted with one’s relative privilege but also the parallels of this experience and their absurd contradictions. All three parties – dogs with invalid passports, their human familial counterparts, and those seeking asylum and refuge – are inextricably entangled in this tale and share, even if momentarily, common experiences; callous bureaucracy, the intersection of networks and systems of knowledge that draw borders (national, ecological and medical cartographies), care, its blatant lack, and communality in the face of adversity and yet the gulf between them is vast. Those very same commonalities are experienced in irreconcilably different ways, with profoundly different consequences and resolutions (or lack thereof).
Some tales have happy endings and others do not, indeed seemingly cannot. Even if these two dogs had been left for twenty-one days in what is effectively a canine detention centre, completely foreign and indifferent to their stories and privilege, an end was always in sight. Although disconcerting, at times profoundly disturbing – a highly unlucky and most futile chain of occurrences – a resolution of sorts was nonetheless always conceivable. Indeed, we are well resourced. Thank providence for good friends! No matter the enormity of the demand, we share an understanding. This is a precious gift of friendship and it is ultimately the cause of the poor hounds’ delivery from their wretched, futile incarceration. Upon receiving news of the tragedy, Thomas, kin of sorts, seemingly without a doubt, pledged his good will and strength by offering to spring the hounds from jail at the earliest opportunity. A four-hour drive from Düsseldorf, setting off before dawn has even begun to crack, meant that the following morning we would awake to the reassuring news of their safety and freedom carried to us instantaneously, in the same manner we shared the news the evening before, by virtual, digitised carrier pigeons. *Ting* Whoosh* Horrah! A clumsy oversight is responsible for a small hemorrhaging of money, in a long and weary chain of such hemorrhages, a whole lot of extra driving, stress and further exhaustion while the two hounds, brother and sister, after what we suppose must have been a distressing night alone, are actually receiving a ‘holiday’.
Now the ease of this ending is not lost on me. The irreconcilability of these experiences unsettles me. Whether it be in narrating this story in the ‘notes’ section of my hand-me-down I-phone with cracked screen the following day on the coach from London Victoria back to Bristol or editing it later at one of my desks – Wills Memorial Library, my bedroom, or the Albertina Library in Leipzig, Germany, free to the point of access, the European wide internet server, Eduroam, automatically picked up by my computer once within the reach of signal – my sensitivity compels me to question these tumultuous encounters. At what point does care, friendship, solidarity become a privilege? Who or what is in a position to be cared for and by whom? What resources beyond material wealth can we count on? Or rather, what do our resources – material, emotional, cultural, cosmic – count for? And why? Are the answers to be found in the lines of my palms or it a constellation of much more sinister proportions?
A postscript by way of explanation …
As already alluded to, I wrote the bulk of this story spontaneously, in one go and without further editing, January just passed, the following day on the coach back to Bristol using an relatively ‘user-unfriendly’ Iphone. The intended reader and recipient was a friend. For the university blog platform and to mine some of the insights I panned in the initial rush, it felt important to cultivate the prose somewhat more judiciously. In doing so – especially in balancing and juxtaposing times (seasons, recent and recessing memories), rhythms and intentions (audiences, styles, platforms) – I am experimenting and playing with the opportunities afforded by writing. The tale in its entirety is concurrently an attempt at conveying (‘embodying’) the experience through text, generating ‘academic’ insight (that is analysis), itself a process of self-reflection, an act of storytelling.
All opinions in the text are those of the author and I welcome any feedback the reader might have.
Written by Stanley Connell-Longman